My first job out of college was as a fact-checker at Sports Illustrated. This is a great job for an aspiring journalist because you get a firsthand view of how many inaccuracies can be found in almost any story, and how true details of anecdotes can often turn out to be more interesting and revealing than the twice-told versions we often read and re-read in daily papers. At a large magazine, you often have more time and resources to get the facts straight.
This starts, of course, with people’s names. The great writer Frank Deford once wrote Tony La Russa’s name as you see it, with a space between the La and the Russa. The White Sox press guide had it as LaRussa, so I was about to change it in the copy, when Deford, one of the most accurate writers I ever fact-checked, said, “No, I asked him. He said it’s wrong in the press guide.” The next year and thereafter the press guide had it right.
In checking facts, you quickly learn that people’s memories of events are remarkably unreliable. Cognitive neuroscientists tell us that we reshape events in our minds every time we revisit them. You always want to go back to the original record, if there is one.
As a fact-checker, you often find yourself asking a famous person or family member to verify all kinds of biographical details. One of the first stories I ever checked was “The Dirtiest Player in the NFL,” about a Cardinals guard named Conrad Dobler. A line in the story read, “He was mean as a child and once played Joan of Arc with his sister.” I got his mother back in Wyoming on the phone and asked, “Was Conrad mean as a child?”
Pause. “Well, he was kind of ornery.”
“Did he play Joan of Arc with his sister?” I asked, not really grasping the meaning of the sentence on the page.
Another pause. “Well, he set her on fire, if that’s what you mean.”
Allrighty, then! That’s what we called a red, or hard, check.
Sometimes a source gets impatient with the process, saying “I already told all of this to that writer who was here.” But once you explain that an august publication like Sports Illustrated is committed to making sure that everything in it is correct, folks tend to like the idea.
The rarest situation, though, is a person who flat-out told lies to the writer and defends them in the fact-checking process. In fact, I can think of only one person who ever did this to me.
In 1983, Donald Trump was the owner of the USFL New Jersey Generals, in addition to being a real estate tycoon. By nature, real estate developers make their fortunes by imagining the impossible (“I will build the most luxurious apartment building in the world.”) and exaggerating the product when it’s done: “The apartments in this building are worth $20 million. Queen Elizabeth and Sylvester Stallone have already bought here, just as investments.”) That is what Donald Trump has done many times over. His father once saw a garbage landfill in Brooklyn, figured out a way to secure foundations in the decaying matter, and built a housing development on top of it.
I checked all that, and I checked that the floor of the Trump Tower lobby is actually Breccia Perniche marble from Italy, and that somehow the floors are numbered to seem higher than they actually are.
I had him on the phone. So Ivana was an Olympic skier? Yes, for her native Czechoslovakia. The Time Inc. worldwide correspondents went to work. No Ivana on the rosters. “Ah,” he said, “It might have been Austria. She had dual citizenship.” Again the correspondents found nothing. “Well maybe she was an alternate.” The discussion went on and on, back and forth. It finally ran in SI that she was a competitive skier.
The worst fact was that he was first in his class at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He said he was—he swore up and down that it was true. But he wasn’t. On the bio notes that flashed up during the debate the other evening, one line read, “Attended the Wharton School of Business.”
I should note that, during the entire process, I had complete phone access, much as political reporters have noted that, even in the busiest moments of this proto-campaign, Trump happily gives eight or nine interviews a day. I should also note that he was courteous at all times, even when I had to call back again and again to report the Olympic teams Ivana had not skied for.
You learn rather quickly that facts, debates, and zingers are dandy sport for this Brooklyn-born bull in a china shop. Herschel Walker got a great pro start with the New Jersey Generals, leaving Georgia a year early for the big bucks in a way that hadn’t been done since the Galloping Ghost Red Grange left Illinois in 1925 to barnstorm with a promoter named C.C. “Cash and Carry” Pyle. “He gave me everything he promised and more,” said Grange.
I think it’s fair to say that today Trump is giving us everything he promised and more.
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